I am a believer in outlining and planning before, during, and after the drafting process for most long forms of creative writing. Generally, I’m always searching for a way to better organize my thoughts. As a writer, this means I experiment with various outlining and “story plotting” tools.
Two popular story plotting applications are Dramatica (B000H774K0) and Contour (B002ABL3IK). In addition to my thoughts on these tools, you can read reviews on Amazon and various writing-focused forums.
Bluntly, Dramatica Pro 4.1 is too precise and Contour 1.2 is not precise enough.
Contour guides you through a serious of basic questions based on a single “Blockbuster” template for screenplays and novels. There is one, and only one, Contour story structure. You can create a basic story outline in a few hours, assuming you follow the model.
Contour could be great. It looks a lot better than Dramatica, but the beauty is only skin deep.
The Contour application does nothing more than present a question and allow you to type any answer you want. It doesn’t check your work or enforce any rules. You could accomplish the same task with a list of questions on paper. Having a database of sample stories is nice, but Contour didn’t help me think about my writing.
Honestly, I can create a basic “template” of the plot points emphasized by Contour in any word processing application, from Final Draft to Word. I’ve even thought about doing just that to see how the process might work. I still might create an automatic Word template for this purpose.
At the other extreme is Dramatica Pro with its supposed 32,767 (32K) story structures. If you want too much detail, too much time spent planning, then Dramatica is the procrastinator’s best friend.
I spent an entire week, several hours a day, putting data into Dramatica Pro. I can’t easily explain the process in a short blog post, but suffice it to state that Dramatica’s approach was too much. I never finished the process.
After a week, I still didn’t have my story outline in Dramatica. I had a dozen or so pages of character notes, story notes, and rough ideas, but nothing close to a usable story structure. I finally exported what I had and went to work writing.
Dramatica Pro did help me think about characters and their relationships, but the “story forming” process was too intense. I started with the “Level One” form, which asks 75 questions. If you manage to get through to Level Three, you end up answering 250 questions about the story. I’m sure that’s great for some writers, but it didn’t work for me.
I ended up in a personal loop: changing one story form answer meant I had to change those plot points before and after the change. I ended up frustrated with the process, so tangled in the Dramatica approach to stories that I didn’t want to write the actual manuscript.
If I could trim Dramatica’s process and package it with Contour’s interface, I’d be pleased. If I had to choose between the two, I’d end up using Dramatica to think about a story of any serious complexity. I might even get used to Dramatica’s detailed approach to outlining and creating stories, but it would take a great deal of practice and patience.
Contour is a good, basic guide to story plotting. I would use it for a basic writing class without hesitation. However, it doesn’t really do anything I can’t do on my own. Yes, an “expert” helped create the questions, but the questions are similar to those in many books on creative writing.
I know some authors simply sit and write. After struggling with Dramatica, I was ready to find a typewriter and avoid computers entirely. Part of the problem is that Dramatica looks like an ancient application. The screens are difficult to read, a challenge to navigate, and remind me of old GEOS-based software. The Mac version is visually horrible on OS X.
Both Contour and Dramatica Pro were supposed to be updated in late 2009. The updates are late. In the case of Dramatica, the update is overdue by three years.
Theoretically, the appearance of Dramatica shouldn’t have bothered me so much. Realistically, hard to read is hard to use.
More detailed reviews will be coming in a few weeks. I’ll write about each application separately.